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Navigating Over the River: Weighing the Impacts of Art in the Landscape

Chris Loftus, RLA, ASLA

It’s an intriguing vision: miles of luminous sliver ribbon suspended over a wild river, bending light and accentuating canyon curves. First conceived by the artist Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude in the early nineteen-nineties, the Over the River (OTR) project proposes to suspend 5.9 miles of silver fabric in eight distinct locations along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in South-central Colorado.

Over the river trial run

A field test completed in 1999 shows how OTR could look from below the fabric. This image was published in the Environmental Impact Statement issued in 2011.

The path to realization of OTR has been as curvilinear and dynamic as the river over which it is proposed. Years of analysis and thousands of pages of permitting documents, multiple state and federal law suits, and a flurry of public opposition have extended the project’s timeline and still obstruct the announcement of an installation date. Once initiated, the project would take 27 months to implement and would be displayed for a two-week period during the month of August.

Impacts to the ecosystems along the Arkansas’ riparian corridor present one of the most contentious aspects of the project. The proposed installation includes a fabric and cable system anchored to the canyon walls and river banks, which could create temporary obstacles to wildlife movement and altered microclimatic conditions. The entire project area is under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) jurisdiction, and an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was completed as part of the permitting process. The EIS describes a number of mitigation measures that address terrestrial, avian, and aquatic wildlife and habitat impacts. These measures include the provision of access to previously unavailable bighorn sheep habitat, the establishment of a bighorn sheep adaptive management fund for future mitigation efforts, creation of raptor nest buffers, preservation of all existing trees in the area, and sedimentation prevention to protect instream habitat. The project implementation schedule was also designed to minimize impacts during especially sensitive seasonal wildlife activity.

OTR_map

A map of the proposed project area which spans 42 miles of the Arkansas River in 8 distinct locations.

Following the 2011 BLM Record of Decision approving the project, multiple legal obstacles surfaced. Recent litigious action and associated publicity have rekindled public interest in the project. On January 2, 2015, a federal judge upheld the BLM’s decision to allow the installation. Another federal appeal was filed on January 26, continuing to delay final permitting and project commencement. On February 12, OTR cleared a state hurdle when the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled to uphold a 2013 decision in favor of Colorado State Parks’ approval of the project. The most visible and organized public and legal opposition has originated from Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, which has fought the project at local, state, and federal levels. ROAR cites potential negative impacts to local communities and wildlife as grounds for blocking the proposal.

Jeanne-Claude_and_Christo_(1995) Reichstag

Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude. Taken outside of the Reichstag in Berlin, the location of one of their famous”wrapped” art pieces.

Christo, who has successfully completed other large scale projects around the world including the Gates installation in Central Park and a previous Colorado installation called Valley Curtain, seems unfazed by the ongoing opposition. His comments indicate that he considers it a valuable part of the process for projects of this scope. In a 2013 Denver Post interview, Christo remarked, “For many years, all the people are thinking how the work will be beautiful, how the work will be awful. Basically the work is working in the mind of the people before it physically exists. This is probably the biggest satisfaction we have.” OTR, like Christo’s other installations, is funded solely from sales of the artist’s work, including the original concept sketches.

Proponents of Christo’s work believe that it accentuates natural forms and invites people to reinvent their perceptions of the landscape. Opponents find the installations obtrusive and unnatural. Time and the legal system will determine OTR’s fate. In the meantime, the Arkansas River will continue its dynamic flow through the Rocky Mountains toward the Great Plains.

About the Author

Chris LoftusChris is a Registered Landscape Architect with over ten years of experience working in the western United States. He specializes in the reintroduction of highly functioning ecological systems to degraded landscapes.

 

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